Philosophy, Civil Wars, and Climate Change

Visiting Philosophy Professor Elizabeth Victor has written of her own research in an earlier post for this blog, and here she thinks about broader discipline-based issues raised at the recent American Philosophical Association’s eastern division meeting by its Vice president, Prof. Linda Martín Alcoff.   In recounting what might be termed the politics of political analysis, Liz reminds us that we need not look far to face questions of bias and social justice.  

Linda Martín Alcoff is a philosopher who specializes in epistemology, feminism, race theory, and existentialism. She is currently the vice president of the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division (the largest division of the APA). In her annual address to the APA , Alcoff reframed the “civil wars” of philosophy, traditionally understood as the conflict in style and focus between the analytical and continental schools of thought, to discuss pluralism, inclusion, and the problem of representation in the discipline.

Alcoff pointed out that the harm in ignoring other “styles” of philosophy all too often coincides with what she calls “demographic challenges.”  She invited philosophers to ask the difficult question of whether the low number of women and minorities in philosophy might be related to the treatment of feminist philosophy more generally. Reminding her listeners that the host of the 1998 World Congress of Philosophy (John Silber) attacked feminist philosophy in his address as “an assault on reason,” and that same year leading Philosopher Colin McGinn commented in the Times literary supplement that “feminism now has a place in most departments, for good or ill, but it has not made any impact on the core subject,” Alcoff suggests that we cannot, despite the common assumption, delink the treatment of women in the discipline from the treatment of feminist philosophy.

While philosophy is similar to physics and engineering in its problems of demographic homogeneity, the sciences have spearheaded endeavors to improve the representation of women in the STEM disciplines (e.g.,, philosophy has acknowledged the problem but done little to ameliorate it. Alcoff encourages us to consider what might be philosophical causes and reasons for the lack of diversity in philosophy departments. She argues that feminist theory has been labeled political inquiry, and while political inquiry might help philosophers clean out the clutter surrounding core philosophical questions, it does not, in itself, connect up with structural concerns of truth and knowledge. The pursuit of “the truth” is the norm that governs philosophers, and the pursuit of political inquiry has historically been represented as usurping the philosopher’s pursuit of knowledge.

Yet, Alcoff goes on to point out that in addition to the “[t]he norms of justification and belief formation and acceptable ontologies of truth…we need a political and epistemic accounting of how we come to define knowledge and reference.”  Thus, she states, “we cannot keep our epistemology tidily separate from our social and political analysis if we truly want to understand not only truth effects but truth itself.”  When we attempt to separate out the political analysis, as is often done by relegating the questions and research projects of political import to the social sciences, women’s studies, or queer theory, what philosophers are doing is misnaming a contextual difference.

It is exciting to be a woman in philosophy during a time when we are giving a voice to women across the analytic/continental divide, regardless of whether one has an interest in feminist theory. In addition to Alcoff’s address, blogs such as What Is It Like to be a Woman in Philosophy?, the Implicit Bias & Philosophy Project, What We’re Doing about What It’s Like, and the Gendered Conference Campaign  should give us hope that philosophy is at the beginning of a paradigm shift that will result in those at the margins of philosophy being moved to the center.


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